A tale of toys: How a humble man gave hope to 60,000 disadvantaged children
İnci Hazal Özcan-ANKARA
Ümit Kavak, a humble benevolent, has spent the last 15 months collecting and distributing second-hand toys to more than 60,000 disadvantaged children in Turkey’s southeastern provinces.
Kavak’s quest for helping those in need began when he graduated from college and returned to his home town, the Ceylanpınar district of southeastern Şanlıurfa.
“Back then, the impacts of the Syrian War were intensely felt in Ceylanpınar. I began to visit villages [in Şanlıurfa] to get rid of work stress. I met two children there, İsmail and Yusuf,” he told Hürriyet Daily News.
As Kavak made his visits more frequent, he began to bring food to the children and started sharing their photographs on his Instagram account.
“One day, a friend of mine in Istanbul wanted to send some second-hand toys to the children. After we shared the images of the children as we were handing out the toys, many people around us mobilized. And only month after this, hundreds of people wanted to send toys,” he said.
Kavak is now working with a lot of volunteers who help him distribute the toys, however, in the first six months of his humanitarian journey, he was all alone.
“I was on my own pushing all means to accomplish this. People around me were calling me a lunatic. They were saying I dropped everything to help the children,” he said.
“But after six months, others came to help including the Red Crescent and many celebrities of Turkey. Around 1,000 people volunteered and half of this figure comes from foreign countries including Austria, Belgium and Germany,” he added.
Kavak is not accepting any financial donations yet he welcomes any volunteers to help him distribute the toys.
“People want to send money but when I tell them we cannot accept such donations, they volunteer for the distribution part,” he said.
“How can one pull this off without taking any donations? Because you have to organize a lot of things here and this comes with a lot of difficulties,” he added.
Around three or four hours of Kavak’s daily routine passes with distribution of the toys yet, what really takes his time is responding to people on social media, he underlined.
There are those wanting to help, those who want help and those in attempts to advertise themselves or the institutions they are working in, Kavak asserted.
The reason his project stood out this much is majorly due to the images of the children he shares, according to Kavak, which also comes with a lot of responsibility because even though he obtains permission from the children’s families, sharing their photographs on social media is a “delicate matter.”
“I want to mirror the expressions of the children in the best possible way, yet, it is a sensitive issue. Because you should do this by keeping their pride intact and must not advertise those sending help,” he said.
“When we give something to the children, we actually see a very timid joy. But their happiness truly begins as they take their toys and start to play inside their houses. We unfortunately miss those moments however, we get really good feedback from the families,” he emphasized.
Many children, who receive toys, “cannot even sleep from happiness,” Kavak stressed based on the feedback he received from the families.
“We forget to think like children. We want them to think like we do but this is impossible,” he stated.
For Kavak, the ethnicity or race of the children he is helping does not matter, but a minority of his followers ask about the children’s ethnic identities.
“Some people ask me if the children are Kurds or Syrians. They tell me that the government is helping them so why should I. No one supporting me can question the ethnicity of a child. I am helping them all: Turkish, Kurdish, Alawite, Syrian or Uzbek,” Kavak stressed.
Kavak also underlined that children in Turkey’s southeastern and eastern villages are more disadvantageous however one can find such children all around the world.
“Children are the same everywhere. A dream of mine is actually to go to Argentina. Now, I am thinking how I can help those children when I go there,” he said.
“Isn’t this a chain reaction? Some things change if we do good deeds all together. I know that I cannot change a lot by handing out toys to 60,000 children. My objective is to brighten the life of at least one child,” he added.
“It does not matter if this figure is 150,000 if I cannot become the light in a child’s life,” he asserted.
When asked if he is thinking about establishing a foundation, Kavak responded that due to public distrust of foundations in Turkey, he does not want to “tarnish his project by becoming a foundation.”
“I want to do something, but I am not sure if this will be a foundation. I embosomed this project with my own efforts, I do not want this to become a matter of interest,” he said.
“I will take some time off in summer to rest a little because by September, I need to figure out an organization model,” he added.
‘This is my legacy’
Kavak’s Instagram account is filled with photos of many disadvantageous children, jumping up and down as they receive toys, but what really made his project popular was a video of a disabled young man named Mehmet Said, Kavak said.
Said, age 26, became disabled when he was 12 after he received a wrong treatment in the hospital, Kavak said.
“Said’s family is very supportive. He has five sisters, and his father wants all of his children to get proper education. However, children in Said’s neighborhood were marginalizing him,” Kavak said.
As Kavak was distributing shoes to children in Said’s neighborhood, he gave Said a storybook, and as he shared Said’s happiness, the video went viral.
Sometime later, Kavak purchased a pair of shoes for himself. When he realized his shoe size was the same as Said’s, he decided to give the shoes to the young man, not because Said needed shoes but because he wanted Said to feel like the children receiving toys.
“I thought that it does not make sense if I have six or seven pairs of shoes. When I gave the shoes to Said, he was delighted just like the other children,” he said.
“But Said did not get happy because he got a shoe. He was happy because he felt equal to all the children there after so much marginalization,” he added.
After that day, people who previously had marginalized Said started to treat him much better, Kavak said.
“People in the neighborhood tell me that after I touched Said’s life, the residents started to love him,” he added.
“This is my legacy. You cannot take a picture of this, but this is the legacy I hand down,” he said.